The timeworn adage: plan for the worst and hope for the best, applies to retailers as they head into flu season, which unfortunately coincides with their busiest season of the year. Small business owners face the specter of a fresh outbreak of the H1N1 pandemic as it threatens North America. Here are some preparation guidelines:
Smart small business owners should always prepare and regularly update business continuity plans, in case their operations are slowed or shut down entirely due to a natural or manmade disaster. But the push for planning is particularly strong now. Although the H1N1 flu discovered last spring does not appear to be as virulent as originally feared, it has been responsible for thousands of illnesses during the Southern Hemisphere's flu season, with more than 300 deaths reported in Argentina alone, as of early this month.
A vaccine for the newly discovered flu strain is not expected until this month, and shortages can be expected. The strain seems to be targeting a disproportionate number of children and young adults. While larger corporations can continue business as usual, even while many employees are out sick, small firms that rely heavily on key individuals may find themselves nearly incapacitated if several people get sick, must stay home with sick children, or are in areas put under quarantine.
At a minimum, small business owners should update employees' contact information to include current home phone numbers and addresses, email addresses, and cell phone numbers. Some employers establish phone trees, so they can efficiently contact all their employees to check on and alert them during an emergency. Another vital component to a business continuity plan is to collect contact information, including cell phone numbers, for their suppliers, vendors, and key customers. Keep this information in print and online, and store copies off site in case management can't get to their places of business.
A host of legal and medical questions may arise for small business owners if swine flu roars back with a vengeance this fall, said John Robinson, employment law practice group leader at Fowler White Boggs law firm in Tampa. What do you do, for example, if you operate a toy store where vulnerable children congregate, and colds and flu are prevalent. Do you close and send staff home at the first sign of any flu? Do you send home sick children and sick staff? When? "These are not easy questions," he said.
Robinson recommends that companies prepare for operational disruptions by doing employee cross training, or lining up backup staff now. "Employers should review and enhance existing emergency disaster plans to ensure business continuity. Employers that are just getting started should develop a plan that includes pandemic preparedness, and review it and conduct drills regularly," Robinson said. A checklist for flu policy is posted at the government's flu awareness website.
Kate Lister, an author and telework researcher, suggested that companies, especially small ones, start preparing for, "social distancing," now. That is a term that describes preventing individuals from clustering in large groups where infections are more likely to spread. Working from home would obviously not be an acceptable strategy for most people in a retail environment. But staggered shifts and flexible work hours may be helpful and become necessary, if swine flu becomes widespread.
Aside from preparing and practicing for a pandemic, small business owners may want to check with their attorneys for advice on unusual situations, Robinson said. For instance, "What do you do with employees who are medically vulnerable to the flu, or those with young children or elderly relatives at home? Do you send them home? When and for how long? With or without pay?"
The federal Family Medical Leave Act provides eligible employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for themselves or sick family members. Generally, Robinson says, FMLA regulations do not cover flu absences unless complications arise, but courts recently have interpreted the FMLA to mandate leave for the flu and other viral infections. However, the federal law does not cover firms with fewer than 50 employees, Robinson pointed out. "Small employers usually do not have to provide sick leave, so it is a surprise to many employees that they are not entitled to any sick leave, much less any paid sick leave," he noted.
Another question is what communications responsibility does a business owner have if an employee is diagnosed with swine flu. "There are health confidentiality and privacy issues for employees, so employers should not disclose personal health information," he said. "But employers do not want a modern day Typhoid Mary spreading swine flu at work. If there is an employee with confirmed swine flu, some employers are alerting employees that there may be swine flu exposure at work, without identifying the involved employee." One consideration is to give an infected person's immediate co-workers enhanced sick leave, to protect themselves or family members, particularly if they have particular medical vulnerability to the illness. Some employers bring in cleaning crews to disinfect an area where swine flu has been found. Providing hand disinfectant for employees is not a bad idea, for starters.
Many government and business organizations' websites offer information on swine flu preparedness. They include the Centers for Disease Control, The World Health Organization, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Information in this article was edited from a story in Business Week.
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